What were they thinking? The members of the Academy of Motion
Pictures voted the Dutch film Character 1998's Best Foreign
Film, and they certainly picked a well-crafted film. But its subject
matter plays to stereotypical notions Americans have about how
family dynamics work, or in some cases, don't work. It's hard
to believe American audiences can put notions of the "dysfunctional
family" out of their minds when they watch Character,
a film that undoubtedly was not made as a paean to the
Based on a 1938 Dutch novel, Character opens with a young
man attacking an older rival in a fury. The younger man, named
Katadreuffe, is taken into custody by the police, where he maintains
his innocence but must explain his connection to the now dead
man, Dreverhaven. The story spins back to Katadreuffe's childhood:
His mother, Joba, had the young boy out of wedlock, and Dreverhaven
was the father. As Katadreuffe grows up, the audience is shown
his increasing alienation from his stoically quiet mother, his
persistent desire to educate himself and Dreverhaven's seemingly
endless quest to throw obstacles in his son's way. Is it any wonder
that the son could one day snap and kill the man who has inflicted
so much pain on him?
But this is where our own American cultural biases come into play.
To read the movie as a portrait of family dysfunction is so tempting:
The ostracized mother can't provide her son with a loving home;
the son has no positive role model to which to aspire, and the
selfish father refuses to care for and protect his own child.
The result? Heartbreak for all. But that's clearly a ridiculous
reading of this movie. With its historical setting in 1920s Rotterdam,
it simply doesn't work. The title is the first clue that maybe
we shouldn't be looking at this through our modern eyes. Character,
afterall, can mean temperament, personality or integrity. While
not explicit, the film makes connections between the different
outlooks of Katadreuffe, Dreverhaven and Joba as inherited, or
fate, if you will.
For instance, Dreverhaven's job is as a court bailiff, a combination
loan shark/repo man/Sheriff of Nottingham-type who evicts the
poor and the sickly from their homes and takes property from the
bankrupt. The law, as he says, is on his side, but he performs
his duties with such inexplicable zeal that even he has nightmares
of the revenge the downtrodden may one day take upon him. Katadreuffe
has also been drawn to the world of law--he wants to become an
attorney, though he is told that his poor background almost assures
his failure. Nevertheless, his own obsession helps him succeed,
despite the obstacles his father seems to set up in his path.
An inescapable possibility the film posits is that Dreverhaven
is purposefully plaguing his own son in an attempt to make the
son as strong as the father. The intricacies of "nature vs.
nurture" are all mixed up in a story that was created before
the phrase even came into being.
But to get away from thematics, Character is also a visual
stunner. It captures the old streets of Rotterdam beautifully
in grays and blacks, but when Katadreuffe enters the world of
law for the first time, the screen becomes bathed in light. The
law offices in which he is employed are captured in rich cocoa
browns. The movie truly creates its own gloomy world, in a strange
way that reminded me of the brilliant recent release Dark City.
And the oft-neglected workhorse of film, the soundtrack, deserves
special praise in Character. The music perfectly aids the
mood of the film as it tracks the life of a troubled young man.
Small beautiful moments are captured on screen as well, strange
things like the letters that pass between Dreverhaven and Joba
13 times or the flooding of a tobacco shop, that viewers should
best see for themselves.
The acting is all first rate from the Dutch cast. The three leads--Fedja
Van Huet (Katadreuffe), Jan Decleir (Dreverhaven) and Betty Schuurman
(Joba)--are truly amazing. Particularly good among the supporting
cast is Victor Löw as Katadreuffe's attorney and mentor De
Gankelaar. The character brings a bit of comedic relief to a dark
story, but he also provides one of the most moving moments of
the film when he must confront Katadreuffe about the limits of
The movie progresses to its unpredictable conclusion with the
same methodical compunction as the characters it shows. One might
expect a tragic end to such a film, but it does not portray desolation
and destruction at its end for its own sake. Instead, the story
offers an intriguing conclusion that settles no questions, leaving
viewers with a meditation on the way children eventually grow
up to be both like and unlike their parents.
Directed by Mike van Diem. Screenplay by Mike van Diem, Laurens Geels and Ruud van Megen.
Starring Fedja Van Huet, Jan Decleir, Betty Schuurman, Victor
Löw, Tamar van den Dop and Hans Kesting.